The Disastrous Major Gift Visit that Turned Me Off from My Once-Favorite Cause

A negative visit from a major gift officer can be far worse than no visit at all. I know because I was on the receiving end of just such a visit.

Written by a member of the Winkler Group team

Instead of leaving me excited and ready to invest in my alma mater’s future, the recent meeting I had with two MGOs left me feeling small and insignificant—even questioning why I give at all. I walked away realizing my visit was just a plug for a hole—a way to fulfill a quota. The meeting also highlighted for me a real danger that’s hanging over our industry.

Here's what happened.

I agreed to meet with two advancement officers from my undergraduate recently during their trip here. It quickly became clear that they knew nothing about me except my name and that I graduated within the last three decades.

My first clue came when they started telling me about the university’s new residence policy—an overhaul of student life that has largely removed Greek organizations from campus. “Sororities and fraternities are not inclusive; we are trying to create a community where everyone belongs,” they explained.

Yes, there is some exclusivity in Greek organizations—as there is in clubs of all types. But I was very active as the chair of my sorority’s philanthropy committee—it’s where I learned the joy of volunteering and where my love of fundraising was cemented. It’s also where I felt a sense of belonging on a large campus far from home.

The MGOs then asked me if I knew another alum who lived in the area. When I responded yes, one of them said, “oh, I think their son is a student of ours.” 

No,” I responded. “He didn’t get in and it was a really hard time for their whole family.” 

The two MGOs looked at each other and said, “admissions” with an awkward sigh. “The day admissions decisions go out is so hard for us,” they complained with little regard to how these decisions impact legacy families like mine.

The conversation then turned to the university’s vision; from their lengthy description, it seemed science was going to be its only focus.

“We want to be known as one of the leading research institutions in the world like Johns Hopkins or Berkeley,” they explained.

I asked, “What about the humanities? Are they being sacrificed?” My major—political science—suddenly seemed frivolous in light of the lofty scientific advancements they were touting.

At this point, I started to have some fun. Telling them nothing about my profession, I asked if the university was in the quiet phase of a campaign.

“Oh, you know what a quiet phase is! I guess you’ve been through a campaign before,” one of them responded with excitement. If they had bothered to even read my email signature line, they would know that I’m an executive at a firm that does nothing but help clients prepare for and execute capital campaigns.

It was clear that I was filler—that they cared so little about me to even find out the most basic information. True, I will never be a lead donor to the campaign. But I have been a faithful contributor since I graduated and have led committees and alumni interviews for years.

This visit highlighted for me the shortcomings of a quota system that values volume (the number of donor visits) over quality (the time it takes to build authentic donor relationships). It’s little wonder we’re facing a crisis of generosity in our country.

To my fellow development advancement and development professionals: please remember how important it is to know something about the person across the table or on the other end of the line. At least ask them about themselves (and actually listen to the response) before talking or risk putting your foot in your mouth.

It should come as no surprise that I haven’t received a thank you from these advancement officers—not even a quick email or a text. I gave up an hour of my day the week before Christmas and in the middle of end-of-the-year giving chaos. I was filler, remember. Why should I expect to be thanked?

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